Afghanistan finally has a new president – and a chief executive officer (CEO). Ashraf Ghani’s first act after being sworn in was to sign a decree establishing the new position of CEO and then appointing to it his bitter election rival and now partner in government, Abdullah Abdullah, who was thereby enabled to also take an oath of office at the inauguration ceremony. There was relief that all this happened at all, but also some pointers to what lies ahead. In Ghani’s inaugural speech, there were sharp warnings to judges, prosecutors, MPs, members of the security forces and his own colleagues in government to behave better. On 30 September, Ghani followed up with more key appointments. However, says Kate Clark (with input from Obaid Ali), his most unprecedented move was to publically thank his wife, Rula Ghani.President Ghani sworn in ny chief judge. Photo c/o ToloNews.
The inauguration finally went ahead after months of elections, audits and wrangling (see AAN’s election dossier for all the details) and, reportedly, last minute altercations over inauguration protocol and office space. The New York Times reported a clash over who would get the old first vice presidential offices, new First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum or new CEO Abdullah, and a threat that Abdullah would not turn up to the inauguration. He was apparently incensed that the election results had been released (see AAN analysis of them here) and that he was not going to be given the chance to speak at the inauguration. In the end, though, the protocol was negotiated and agreed and the ceremony went smoothly ahead.
Outgoing president Hamed Karzai spoke briefly to those gathered at the presidential palace – ministers, governors, senior statesmen (there really were very few women in the audience) and visiting dignitaries – and then sat in the front row (with hat – symbolically? – off and in his lap) to watch his successor be sworn in. Abdul Salam Azemi, the acting chief justice, took Ghani through his oath of office after which Ghani took his two vice presidents, Dostum and Sarwar Danesh, through theirs. Ghani, the Pashtun, was sworn in in Dari, while his running mates, an Uzbek and a Hazara, managed their oath in Pashto.
Ghani’s next task was to sign a presidential decree establishing four new offices of state, the CEO and his two deputies and a High Representative for Reform and Governance. The latter post was for Ahmad Zia Massud, who had been due to get the CEO job himself, before stepping aside in the interests of national unity. Ghani then took Abdullah and his two running mates, Muhammad Khan and Muhammad Mohaqiq, through their oaths (all in Dari). (On 30 September, he followed up with his next key appointments: former NGO activist, interior minister and leadership member of the pro-reform Rights and Justice Party, Hanif Atmar, became chairman of the National Security Council; Abdul Salam Rahimi, also a former NGO activist and deputy finance minister, now head of one of Afghanistan’s largest media groups, Saba, was appointed chief of staff, as the presidential office confirmed to AAN – now also on presidential website. Atmar replaces Dadfar Rangin Spanta and Rahimi replaces Abdul Karim Khorram.)
It was then Abdullah who spoke. The optics initially looked strange – the CEO speaking before the president. However, after Ghani took the stage, the reason became clear. His was to be the substantial speech of the ceremony. Had Abdullah gone second, it would have looked like an afterthought. As it was, Abdullah’s short speech was important. He publically said theirs was now a united team and that he would “serve as CEO for President Ghani.” He also called on “all Afghans – politicians and scholars – and internationals to stand together with the unity government and implement the Afghan people’s wishes and demands.” It was then Ghani’s turn.
Ghani takes the stage
There were fewer jokes in Ghani’s speech than in any Karzai equivalent, fewer attempts to pull at the heart strings of his audience or blame the neighbours or the international powers for Afghanistan’s problems. It was long – almost an hour – and serious, touching on many of the themes familiar from his campaigning speeches and interviews. There were also hints of what may be his priorities in power.
Ghani spoke about three pillars that the government needs cooperation from while, at the same time, warning them of the consequences of failing to cooperate. The parliament, he said, was responsible for overseeing government actions, approving laws and representing the people. “We ask MPs not to have private meetings with cabinet members and not to ask for [individuals] to be appointed or replaced as government officials,” he added, to very long applause. This looked like a warning shot across the bows that he will not tolerate business as usual. MPs’ authority to approve or reject the president’s choice of ministers has in the past been both an opportunity for ‘rent-seeking behaviour,’ with large sums of money changing hands, and a means of blackmail to extract favours and appointments.
He then turned his attention to the judiciary whom, he said, were “responsible for implementing Islamic law and procedure,” but, unfortunately, he said, “corruption in judicial bodies has paved the way for instability.” Appointments of judges and lawyers were under the authority of the president, he said, and he would try to appoint worthy people. He also warned the Attorney General’s Office to base its pursuit of cases on the constitution and “not go beyond its rights.”
He said he would be immediately reviewing the law on the cabinet and ministries and drawing up a law of procedures between ministers, president and the CEO. He said he would not accept administrative corruption in his government: the national unity government was not about “distributing power.” He also stressed, “We want to be held accountable. I am your leader, but I am no better than you. If I make mistakes, you should hold me accountable.”
His linking of corruption with instability also came up when discussing the security forces. “We should put an end to the illegal use of the security forces. “With regard to security officials, he said, “it should be clear that there will be merit-based appointments of worthy people, not relations-based appointments.” Here it looked like he was probably referring to the police and possibly the NDS, given the army’s far cleaner reputation. He also called on everyone to support the security forces and called for a “voice of peace and stability” to be raised by the ulema and from the madrassas. He promised to deal with “those who are fighting, those who are killing our children and elders” and to “use all legal measures to protect citizens’ rights.” He called on the armed opposition – and singled out Hezb-e Islami here – to talk calmly about their problems and return to work for the benefit of the country. This was then bracketed by a return to the theme that the security forces must improve: “Misuse of government facilities by security forces will be punished according to the constitution.”
The Taleban, incidentally, dismissed the call to ‘come in from the cold’, saying there would be ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan until US forces left. Indeed their response (although not yet claimed) to the change of government appeared to be violent – with two suicide attacks in Kabul near the airport. The second attack, launched as the inauguration got underway, killed and wounded several members of the NDS and wounded several civilians.
Ghani also spoke about the economy, the need to free up Afghan business people and his hope that mineral wealth and Afghanistan’s position at the “crossroads of Asia” could help develop the country. He thanked donor countries for their financial support, but also said stability required economic independence. He spoke of the joint sacrifices made by Afghans and internationals facing down threats to the country, saying he appreciated the international support and stressing the need for their continued backing of the security forces.
Two other issues in the speech were important pointers. One was his repeat of a campaign theme that all Afghans are equal. One practical consequence of that was a promise for a more devolved budget, with money being transferred to the provinces. All provinces, he said, were now at number one level (up till now, they have been graded in importance).
The second – and most unprecedented – part of his speech was when he publically thanked his wife and spoke about her voluntary work with women and internally displaced people (IDPs). Moreover, Rula Ghani was there in the audience, one of very few women, whether local or international, present. Afghanistan no longer has an invisible First Lady.
How will it all work out in practice?
Events have not panned out as either Ghani or Abdullah could have imagined or desired when they each decided to stand for the presidency almost exactly a year ago. Ghani’s detailed ideas of what he wanted his government to do will have to be amended and shaped by the new circumstances of the unity government. His central aim – if his inaugural speech is to go by – reform of government would have been difficult in the best of circumstances. Appointments are key to making the state work more efficiently and to the benefit of citizens rather that those holding the positions.
However, Ghani will not have full control of appointments. He would always have been under pressure from those in his own camp for rewards in the shape of jobs. There will now also be Abdullah’s to consider. One consequence of having a national unity government is a doubling of the number of people who consider themselves fit and deserving (because they backed Ghani or Abdullah) to be ministers, governors, generals, district governors and all the way down. It could all make for a messy, unwieldy state. However, reform would seem to be vital for the state to survive, given the problems Afghanistan faces – falling international revenues, an embattled economy and an emboldened insurgency.
In his speech, Ghani repeatedly suggested that corruption in the state itself feeds instability (for an AAN take on this, in relation to security detainees, see here). The tiffs over office space and protocol before the ceremony could auger badly for the way ahead. However, both contenders from the second round, now partners in government, promised at the inauguration to cooperate for the benefit of the nation. They now have to work together – or fail together.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020